Opinion: Razing U of A’s Humanities building symbolizes assault on humanities

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The Edmonton Journal recently reported that the University of Alberta would likely demolish its Humanities Center, to spare the expense of maintaining it. Once, this building was home to several humanities disciplines, later collapsed into other departments. Now only English remains. The building occupants haven’t been told when they’ll have to leave, or where they might go, when the wrecking ball arrives. As English professors who teach (or once taught) in that beautiful building, we hope Albertans will join us in protesting this dreadful demolition.

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This building was constructed for the needs of humanities, with classrooms just the right size. Small classes are the keystone of learning in the humanities (English/film studies, history, philosophy, classics, East Asian studies, religious studies, modern languages, comparative literature). Outside the humanities, students encounter auditorium-sized classes, but we teach students to write, to read analytically, to argue persuasively. Essays covered with instructors’ comments, and small-class discussions, are how we teach. Suitable overflow classrooms for English have seldom been found in other campus buildings — if the Humanities Center is gone, its classrooms won’t be replaceable. (And why alienate taxpayers or potential university donors by demolishing a building that recently underwent several years of asbestos removal?)

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In the late 1980s, U of A English (a Canada center of excellence) had 71 professors and some 80 sessional lecturers, and taught every university undergraduate. The university has grown, and English still teaches nearly every undergraduate; but after repeated budget cuts, English now has only about 40 professors — one for every 1,000 students. Next year it will have about 30, including only two younger professors to carry on.

The building is being shamefully neglected. It has no English department office — if an instructor misplaces an office key, or a student needs directions or just a smile, they find no help, just deserted office space. Trash isn’t collected. Bathrooms aren’t cleaned. All this in a core discipline of an eleven highly regarded Canadian university.

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When constructed 50 years ago, Humanities was an exquisite, innovative building, and remains so today — a fine example of modernist architecture, with its long central atrium several stories high, gorgeous banners designed by Canadian artist Takao Tanabe, well-proportioned classrooms, circular audio-visual center And its splendid view.

When students attend classes in such surroundings, where their teachers know their names, their spirits expand. What a loss, to tear down this important piece of Alberta’s architectural history. Assiniboia Hall (built 1912) is still in use. Dentistry/Pharmacy has recently been restored, preserving the handsome appearance of that historic building. Can’t we re-animate the Humanities Center as well?

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Shall we destroy the building’s Salter Reading Room, named for Edmontonian of the century FM Salter and sponsored by his family, and the Rudy Wiebe creative writing room, named for a giant of western Canadian literature who taught here? Or efface the memory of donors like Sarah Nettie Christie, or in front of the families of other former students, who generously funded scholarships in memory of loved-ones’ happy days in this place? Or bulldoze its Indigenous students’ room, or halls where Nobel laureates have lectured? The building is not just concrete and tile: it houses human beings, and represents a proud history of the humanities in our province.

We think Albertans want university students to continue learning traditional skills like writing and analytical reading, and studying classic authors like Shakespeare, Dickens, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Thomas King. Without such acquired literacy, how will future citizens be equipped to function in a world where untruths constantly bombard us?

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In the beginning, Alberta proudly made the decision to found a proper university, with humanities at the centre. When the U of A had only four professors, one of them was an English professor, Edmund Kemper Broadus. The university’s mission then was to uplift the whole people.

Now, the assault on the Humanities Center is emblematic of an assault on the humanities. We ask citizens who care about humanities to write to the university president (president@ualberta.ca) and board of governors (boardchair@ualberta.ca), urging that the humanities be suitably supported, and that the majestic Humanities Centre, that brave and tattered flag in the hurricane, be spared.

Prof. Linda Woodbridge is former chair of English at the University of Alberta.
Prof. Patricia Clements is former dean of arts at the U of A.
Prof. Cecily Devereux is chair of English at the U of A.
Katherine Binhammer, Dianne Chisholm, David Gay, Isobel Grundy, Ian MacLaren, JS McMaster, Jon Stott, Garry Watson are English professors at the U of A.

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